A light that will never go out

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SUCCESSIVE governments always missed a trick by when it came to honouring Seve Ballesteros – and now that he has died, it is far too late.

Such was the esteem in which he was held by the British public, he should surely have qualified for an honorary knighthood – even golfers of rather less obvious quality, like Bob Hope and Terry Wogan, managed to get one!

The reason it would have been so apt in Ballesteros’ case is that he was beloved by the British public, who embraced his presence on the golf course and adopted him as one of their own.

Such was his enduring popularity, that he gained the support of the crowd at the expense of home-grown British players – they were entranced by the magical qualities that he was able to conjure up on the course, sharing in his joys at sinking a long putt, or despairing when things went wrong, which was not often in his hey-day.

Arnold Palmer turned golf into a huge industry in the United States many years before – by contrast, Europe was slow to catch up, but the arrival of Ballesteros did the same for the game on this side of the Atlantic.

It is not just the game of golf that owes Ballesteros a huge debt, it is his fellow professionals as well, for they have reaped the financial benefits.

There was always something happening with Ballesteros out on the course – he lived on the edge, and it was never boring when he was out there.

The public willingly forgave his foibles and failings, his occasional flashes of temper which saw him go through the services of any number of caddies.

Towards the end of his playing career, it was sad to see Ballesteros, hit by chronic back problems, struggling, largely without success, to restore his former glories.

But even so, people stuck with him, not merely out of loyalty, but at the chance he would recapture the old magic.

In 1997, he was a hugely successful and inspirational captain of the European Ryder Cup team, charging around the Valderrama course on a buggy, keeping up with the scores and motivating his side to even greater endeavours .

Ballesteros’ name will be forever associated with Royal Lytham and St Annes, for it was there he won two of his three Opens, in 1979 and 1988.

It only seems like yesterday that he did it, decked out in the familiar Slazenger blue sweater and blue slacks, the favourite garb that he wore on his death-bed, dressed specially by his family.

It was at Lytham, in particular, that Ballesteros showed himself to be golf’s great improviser.

Ballesteros all but clinched his first Claret Jug in ’79 with the famous car park shot.

After he ballooned his tee shot on the 16th into a temporary car park, he received a free drop and hit his approach to 15 feet and a birdie putt.

In 1988, Ballesteros denied Nick Price the Claret Jug with what is still regarded as one of the greatest rounds in Open history.

Returning to the 16th, Ballesteros hit a perfect one iron from the tee, before hitting a nine-iron approach just three inches from the hole – the crowd looked on with incredulity and joy.

Maybe neither of these could be regarded as his best-ever shots, outstanding though they were.

That was probably reserved for the 1993 European Masters, played in the rarefied Swiss air at the Crans-Sur-Sierre course – a shot that could left in the file marked miraculous.

Ballesteros found himself behind a swimming pool wall, but hit a wedge over the wall, between branches to the fringe of the green and chipped in for birdie.

The shot can never be repeated, as a granite marker has been erected to celebrate the achievement.

But it was just one of many things for which Ballesteros will be remembered.

Despite its advances on a global scale, golf struggles to provide sustained excitement – especially if there is a runaway leader – but it is true to say there was never a dull moment from the time Ballesteros strode out of the locker-room and on to the course with a strut and a demeanour defying anyone to beat him.

He shone a light on the sport that will never be dimmed, and which will continue to burn brightly long after his death.